Lack of fans has Victoria Grizzlies’ ownership worried

It’s a Wednesday night and Victoria Grizzlies president and alternate governor John Wilson is in his usual perch, high atop The Q Centre, looking down at ice level.

His eyes peer across the Colwood facility as he notices the mid-week crowd, or lack of one.

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With numbers in the stands constantly slipping (attendance was listed at 607 on the team website, but there wasn’t more than 350 in the seats on Wednesday), Wilson, like many sports fans in the area, realizes there is a problem.

In early December last season, the Grizzlies were averaging 1,087 fans per game.

“Absolutely, it’s concerning, but it is a Wednesday night and one of the last place teams [Cowichan Valley] in the league is here. It is concerning, we have to do better and we need the community’s support. Junior hockey is a challenge at every level now,” Wilson said when pressed about declining attendance.

“We need to average 1,000 on weekday games and on weekend games we need 1,500 to make this a viable business plan.”

So far this season, it has been nowhere near those numbers.

Attendance figures on the B.C. Hockey League website state the Grizzlies have averaged 808 fans an outing, which is a bit of a stretch. Yes, the team has sold more tickets than last year, but ticketholders are obviously not all showing up.

The Chilliwack Chiefs lead the 16-team loop with 2,415 fans a night, just ahead of Penticton’s 2,325. It then dips to Vernon’s 1,746 and then spirals to 1,215 for Nanaimo, as the Clippers are currently backing a winner.

Only three other teams average slightly more than 1,000 fans a night, which leaves people wondering just how long this league — in its current state — can survive?

“I don’t know everyone’s books, but I think this league perhaps grew too big for its britches at one time and now it’s right-sizing itself into community teams,” added Wilson. “They need to know where they need to be in size, budget and expectations, as far as revenue and expenses.

“That’s what this new ownership group is doing,” Wilson said of his group, which actually grew to 10 with the addition of Sonya Saujani and Lee Richardson in the off-season. “We’re not even a year in [as a group]. A lot of us are learning and trying different things to make a better effort within the community and improve this attendance.”

So far, it’s not working, but they aren’t giving up.

“You have to remember what this league does for kids and families,” said Wilson. “This league has 75 per cent of players going on to full-ride [$100,000] scholarships. This is a valuable league to people’s hockey aspirations and educational aspirations. There is a great skill-set and there are still lots of players that take that next step into the NHL.”

But it obviously is losing touch with what brings fans into the arenas from the Island to the mainland and on to the Interior.

“Sure, we’re a little bit worried,” Wilson admitted of his own team, which has an operating budget of $700,000-plus a season. “We need the community to support us more. We’re trying to get the team back into the community. Mid-week games are tough, not only for the Grizzlies, but all associations and teams in Victoria, in the winter time. In particular now, with the ability to get any NHL game on TV on any given night. Sunday games are up against the NFL, so that’s tough as well.”

So how do you fix the problem?

“We have to be a community team. We’re trying to get back into the community and have our players out in the community. It will come,” stressed Wilson.

Yet, this team only has a handful of local players, which may be another concern.

“We have to make sure we’re providing that entertainment. I think we are, but we have to get the word out that we need the community’s support and we have to do a better job of marketing the team,” said Wilson. “We need to be better, but I wouldn’t say it’s failing.

“What business doesn’t have worries about next year?” Wilson replied when asked about the future of this club. “We need people to come out and support from a marketing level, sponsorship level and attendance level — without a doubt.

“We have 10 people [owners] heavily involved in the community and other businesses, who have put in their money and decided that they want the Grizzlies to stay in the community and they’re working hard to do that.”

And moving the club is the furthest thing in their mind.

“Have we been approached about selling the club? Yes. About moving it? No,” Wilson added. “There have been locals and non-local interested buyers, who are kicking tires, but I think that happens in junior hockey a lot.”

The problem is getting fans to come out to watch it.

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